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July 31, 2020

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Perseverance off to Mars to look for signs of life

NASA’S latest Mars rover Perseverance was launched yesterday on an astrobiology mission to look for signs of ancient microbial life — and to fly a helicopter-drone on another world for the first time.

A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket took off on schedule at 7:50am from Cape Canaveral, Florida, despite a 4.2-magnitude earthquake that rattled NASA’s Jet Propulsion laboratory in California.

The first stage separation took place a few minutes later, and about an hour after launch the spaceship carrying Perseverance separated from the upper-stage Centaur rocket.

If all goes to plan, Perseverance will reach the red planet on February 18, 2021, becoming the fifth rover to complete the voyage since 1997.

All so far have been American. China launched its first Mars rover last week.

By next year, Mars could therefore have three active rovers, including NASA’s Curiosity, which has traversed 23 kilometers since it landed in 2012.

Perseverance is an improved version of Curiosity — faster, smarter, and capable of autonomously navigating 200 meters per day. About the size of a small SUV, it weighs a metric ton, has 19 cameras, and two microphones, which it is hoped will be the first to record sound on Mars.

On the surface, NASA will deploy the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter — a little 1.8 kilogram aircraft that will attempt to fly in an atmosphere that is only 1 percent the density of Earth’s.

Perseverance’s primary mission is to scour the planet for evidence of ancient life forms. 

Scientists believe that more than 3 billion years ago the planet was warmer than today and was covered in rivers and lakes, conditions which could have led to microbial life.

Perseverance’s drill will collect around 30 intact rock cores and place them in test tubes, to be collected by a future joint US-European mission.

Indisputable proof of past life on Mars will most likely not be confirmed, if it exists, until these samples are analyzed next decade, according to NASA chief scientist Thomas Zurbuchen.

“What we are looking for is likely very primitive life, we are not looking for advanced life forms that might be things like bones or fern fossils,” explained project scientist Ken Farley.


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